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Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language [Paperback]

Steven Pinker
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 28 2011 P.S.
“Deliciously erudite.” —William Safire, New York Times Magazine

“A riveting detective story.” —Chicago Tribune

Steven Pinker, author of the landmark bestsellers The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate—and one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists—and offers an eye-opening explanation of how human beings learn and use language in Words and Rules. First published in 2000, Words and Rules remains one of Pinker’s most provocative and accessible books, illuminating the fascinating relationship between the brain, the mind, and the how language makes us human.

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Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language + The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language + The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
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From Amazon

Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.

Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Language comes so naturally to us that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mystery of mind revealed through language Oct. 10 2002
This is the first Pinker's book I've read; this may or may not be the best choice. In a flush of serendipity, I started finding references to Dr. Pinker and his works elsewhere; turns out he is considered one of the pivotal figures of modern evolutionary psychology and an archenemy of New Age, feminist and other postmodern, erm, thinkers. That alone could have driven me to his works; but I stumbled upon this book by pure chance, and I am very glad I did.
"Words and rules", as its title suggests, is a less ambitious and more technical book than "The Language Instinct" or "How the Mind Works". It is likely to produce less controversy. It is less than friendly for readers without background in linguistics. There are very few far-reaching conjectures - most of the stories Pinker recounts are solid, scientifically verified data.
However, the consequences which follow are disturbing and unusual. The seemingly trivial question of regular and irregular words in languages, and English irregular verbs in particular, has major repercussions for this other question Dr. Pinker had tackled earlier - how the mind works.
To try to sum it up: in language acquisition and language use, humans employ two systems: memory and structure, lexicon and grammar, words and rules. They are interdependent, but distinctly separate. Their separation in human minds is illustrated by numerous examples from children's speech mistakes, speech impediments in people with various brain injuries, and neurological data, obtained by more or less direct observation of brain activity. All languages depend heavily on words; you cannot use even Esperanto unless you have mastered its basic vocabulary.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable Popular Linguistics Book Jan. 30 2002
Having a 25-year-old degree in linguistics, I was pleased to read this book, refreshing my memory on some matters but for the most part showing that the field continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Focusing on a fairly narrow area ("irregular" verbs and also nouns in English and also other languages), the author presents theories to account for this aspect of language, and the experiments which tend to support or refute those theories. Not surprisingly perhaps, his own theories fare pretty well. Since the focus is somewhat narrow, I would recommend that you first read another of Pinker's language books. (The author would probably enjoy MacDonald's "Lilith" if only to add examples of glide/glode crow/crown to his collection of English irregular verbs!)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Applied linguistics Dec 23 2002
By J. Ott
This book may strike some as mind-blowing and some as dull, depending upon your familiarity and interest in the subject. I, for one, found it perfectly suited to my high interest in language and how the mind works. I recommend browsing the book at a local store to get a feel for it. As academic writing goes, this is hardly dry. Pinker writes lucidly and with great humor, using the idea of regular and irregular verbs (!) to explore diverse topics in modern science. I read it with hunger. A great soft introduction to linguistics, and to the nature of the human brain.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars worth every penny Sept. 26 2001
Pinker's Words and Rules is, in short, an awesome book worthy of the highest praise (at least, I think so). Although I do not feel I can do it justice here, hopefully I can give you enough of a hint of the book's thesis to get you interested.
Pinker establishes from the start that the presence of regular and irregular verbs in all languages can tell us far more than one would immediately think. I must admit that, after reading Pinker's first chapter, I was rather skeptical as to how illuminating this apparently simple phenomenon could be. How can such a commonplace principle reveal some of the most integral components of human mind and language? It was a real pleasure, however, to watch my objections to Pinker's argument fall apart as I read the rest of the book.
Briefly, Pinker traces the development of language in children and touches on many original experiments with a wide range of subjects to suggest that there is a discernible structure in our brains that accommodates the regulars and irregulars. Some (the regulars) need only be stored in root form (e.g., to talk) in our memory; our mind can inflect them appropriately (person, tense, etc.) using built-in rules of language (e.g., just add -ed to get the past tense). Other verbs (the irregulars), however, do not follow the rules; all of their forms must be stored in our lexical memory (e.g., am, are, is, was, were; although related irregulars can lead to mini-patterns that help us inflect new verbs that "seem" irregular). These principles are a shadow of the underlying structure of our minds.
This is, of course, only a minuscule fraction of the information Pinker covers in Words and Rules. Best of all, he has a great sense of humor and a gift for writing that makes all of his ideas perfectly clear.
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